Once upon a time in ancient China, hapless thief Qing Ye Se (Ronald Cheng) runs into major trouble when he pilfers the fabled Purple Heaven Sword from Rose (Betty Sun Li), an immortal fairy. Rose doesn't mind being robbed in the least, since a prophecy foretold she would meet her true love this way. During a chaotic chase, Qing gets hold of another legendary artifact, the Pandora's Box sending them both back in time to the Three Kingdoms era. Mistaken for a general, Qing is thrown right into the middle of the Battle of Red Cliff, siding with heroic General Zhou Yu (Huang Bo), genius inventor Liu Bei (Yuen Biao), comely Princess Sun Shang Xiang (Gillian Chung) and crackpot strategist Zhu Ge (Eric Tsang) against power-hungry Prime Minister Cao Cao (Guo De-Gang) and his invading army. Meanwhile, Rose tries to win Qing's heart by disguising herself as the Ambassador of Turkestan (Gigi Leung) using an elaborate puppet contraption that keeps malfunctioning at inopportune moments.
Amidst much mayhem, Qing is somehow mistaken for international movie star Zhang Ziyi and meets an array of magical beings from lovelorn lady ghost Painted Skin (Stephy Tang) to flying terror Princess Iron Fan (Ada Choi Siu-Fan) and the villainous Bull Demon King (Wang Xue Bing), alongside a host of familiar looking heroes from popular Hong Kong movies who join the battle of Red Cliff. Eventually, legendary superheroine Purple Cloud (Athena Chu) - who claims to have a parallel career as a Hong Kong actress called Athena Chu (?!) - sorts this mess out, but only Qing can win back a dejected Rose.
Unlike your average spoof this has the epic sweep, lush production values and spectacle one would associate with a "proper" historical martial arts epic. As always taking his cue from Japanese animation, Lau peppers proceedings with out-of-leftfield fantasy action set-pieces (choreographed by Yuen Cheung Yan) and cartoon-like special effects, stages elaborate song and dance numbers (here is your chance to see Yuen Biao sing "For Auld Lang Syne"!) and employs a sign language interpreter (Yu Qian) to deliberately confuse viewers about the increasingly crazy plot. Some of the cultural references pertaining to Chinese folklore and popular culture may go over the heads of English viewers, though most will laugh along with his spot-on parody of the Beijing Olympics and gags at the expense of House of Flying Daggers (2004), Ghost (1990) and Titanic (1997).
Headed by a magnificently manic Ronald Cheng, the film crams in as many celebrity cameos as the convoluted narrative will allow. Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah reprise their roles from Kung Fu Hustle (2004) (on which Jeff Lau served as second unit director), as does villain Bruce Leung Siu-Lung though his bullet-catch stunt doesn't go quite as well this time round. Nice to see the talented Gillian Chung back on the screen. She scrawls the enemies plans on her undergarments and does a slow-motion striptease, Yuen Biao captures on his cell-phone camera (?!) for posterity. Child star Xu Jiao spoofs her mentor Stephen Chow Sing Chi and there is a copyright flouting cameo from Kung Fu Panda.
Lau seems to have given up playing for pathos and gone all out for laughs. As a gag fest this is often inspired and hysterically funny, but one misses the heartfelt romance and existential musings that underpin his earlier hits. This time the star-crossed love story is an entirely jokey affair. Still, you have to laugh when a flying, machinegun toting Athena Chu attacks a giant monster holding a shrieking, blonde-wigged Ronald Cheng in a silly parody of King Kong or when Ronald Cheng blasts his enemies with a firehose stream of baby pee.